By Sally Apgar
The leader of a native Hawaiian group said yesterday he would defy a federal court order and risk prison rather than violate his religious beliefs by identifying the precise location of artifacts inside two Big Island caves.
In a written declaration filed late yesterday with the U.S. District Court, Edward Halealoha Ayau, the po'o (director) of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, said his group is caretaker of the artifacts, believed to be funerary items, that the group reburied in secret religious ceremonies within Kawaihae (also known as Forbes) Cave and the Mummy Cave in 2001.
Ayau's court statement said, "Our beliefs teach us that those of us who fail to protect or seek to disturb these particular iwi kupuna (ancestral bones) and moepu (burial objects) are moving toward danger, and invite death thereby."
Hui Malama has repeatedly told the federal court that retrieving the items would be a desecration under members' religion, which views retrieving or giving anyone else information to locate the items as "stealing from the dead, an action that threatens severe spiritual consequences for anyone involved."
Hui Malama has argued unsuccessfully in the U.S. District Court in Hawaii and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that fulfilling the court order would violate its constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Hui Malama was founded in 1989 to rebury native Hawaiian remains and burial objects from museums and construction sites.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge David Ezra gave Hui Malama until 4 p.m. yesterday to give the court, under seal, specific locations of each of the 83 items in question which do not include iwi. Ezra said that noncompliance would result in substantial fines and even imprisonment.
In deference to Hui Malama's religious beliefs, Ezra said that someone else could retrieve the items. However, Hui Malama said there would be no difference in spiritual consequences if someone else performed the task.
Ayau's declaration strongly suggests that while he provided GPS coordinates for Kawaihae Cave and a description of Mummy Cave, he refused to give the specific detail Ezra ordered and therefore is likely in violation of Ezra's order.
Ayau's declaration said that on Tuesday, the day Ezra issued his order, the group held an emergency vote and decided they would neither disclose the specific locations nor the names of those involved in the ceremonial reburials in the "darkest of darkness" in the caves, presumably so those individuals could not be subpoenaed for the information.
"If the caves are penetrated and looted, the integrity of the moe loa (eternal rest) of the iwi kupuna buried in those caves would be violated, a consequence of great cultural and religious harm to all those who have assumed the responsibility of protecting the iwi kupuna and moepu, which our ancestors long ago committed to these eternal resting places," Ayau said in his court statement.
Ayau and even members of Hui Malama's board of directors could face imprisonment.
Ayau could not be reached for comment yesterday. Last Thursday, Hui Malama announced that it would no longer communicate with the Star-Bulletin due to "past mistreatment" in the coverage of the group's activities.
Ezra's order stems from a long-standing dispute between Hui Malama and two other native Hawaiian groups represented by La'akea Suganuma of the Royal Academy of Traditional Arts and Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa, who founded Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa.
The two groups sued Hui Malama last August, saying that it took the 83 items from the Bishop Museum under the terms of "a one-year loan" and reburied them in two of the three caves from which they were stolen in 1905 before ending up at the Bishop Museum. Suganuma and Kawananakoa said that Hui Malama violated the rights of other native Hawaiian claimants, which now number 14, when it reburied the items.
Suganuma and Kawananakoa could not be reached for comment.
In another issue relating to the case, Hui Malama told Ezra earlier this week that the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which owns the land where the caves are located, has known their location for years so that it could conduct security checks.
The Hawaiian Homes Commission is a claimant to the 83 artifacts and as such has agreed with Hui Malama that the burial site should not be disturbed. However, as a state agency, it has indicated it will comply with any federal court orders demanding access to the caves.
In court Tuesday, Ezra indicated he would likely contact the commission for further information.
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